Rosie Perez has been captivating audiences for 30 years, giving iconic performance after iconic performance. One thing we don't want to do is define her current string of stellar roles as any kind of "resurgence." Whether you’ve been paying attention or not, she’s been giving us memorable characters that continue to elevate the already robust legacy she’s cemented in this business. And with her ability to give nuanced and multifaceted characters that captivate every generation, I don’t see her slowing down anytime soon.

In 2020 alone, Perez has been in two major projects that center women in ways we love to see. First, she captivated us as Renee Montoya, one of the legendary Birds of Prey in Cathy Yan’s critically acclaimed Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Now she’s given us a complex portrayal of Megan Briscoe in the HBO Max series The Flight Attendant (based on the book of the same name), which recently was picked up for a second season.

Megan is someone who has it all but is still grossly unhappy. She goes to the extreme to gain some additional excitement in her life, at the expense of much more than she bargained for. Complex was on hand for a transparent conversation with Rosie Perez about her impeccable career, mental health in the time of COVID, microaggressions on set, and more.

I love The Flight Attendant. It is a wild and crazy show that I never anticipated or saw coming because I did not read the book. Tell me about your character, Megan, because is more than just a flight attendant, she’s also an informant. Megan is a great character, [but] when they gave me the offer, I initially turned it down because I hate flying. After meeting with Kaley Cuoco and seeing the material, it was just too good to walk away from. Megan is a woman over 50 who is not happy with her life. She goes to extremes to try to make it better and she thinks that money is going to solve all the problems, but it's not about money it's about excitement. She needs excitement in her life to feel important and to feel seen, and a lot of people can relate to that. She has this veneer as someone who has it all together, but being able to showcase and portray all those types of hidden insecurities, was just fabulous.

It's so interesting because you’re right, Megan is looking for something more exciting, but it's just like, "girl, you have it pretty good." I mean, you're not wanted for murder so I think that things are going pretty well for you. So, what new professional challenges and rewards came along with portraying Megan specifically?
As a woman of a certain age and a woman of color, you're always a sore sight and people are always surprised when I say that. I’ve dealt with so much subtle racism in the industry. From people who feel they have to explain to me how to do my job or have condescending tones. I’ve done over 50 projects. On this project, I was ready for a similar treatment. I saw the character, how I felt that I needed to portray her, and what I needed for all of that to happen. So, I came in all tense and everything to this project, and everybody was just looking and said “We love you, do whatever you want to do, you're Rosie Perez!” I just couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. I don't want anyone to have preconceived notions of who I am and what I can do, but yet I was doing it to them. I didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

What makes this production unlike anything you’ve been a part of before? 
This production is so unique from the executive producers all the way to hair, wardrobe, and makeup. Everything was just amazing, and the other cast members of color were asking me what I thought about this job and I said, “Let me tell you something, I've been in this for over 30 years. This set and job are as good as it gets because of the level of respect. It's not a pandering or guilt-ridden type of respect. It's just respect as a human being, and that’s very rare. I've had it, but not often. And, they couldn't believe that. We have a long way to go, but this job right here, it's a wonderful place to be. It just allowed me to shine, and it just wasn't me—they allowed the entire cast to shine. Regardless of color, regardless of nationality, or anything like that. It was amazing!

I love that, and I especially love that for you. And I'm so glad you mentioned the fullness of your illustrious career over the past 30 years. You’ve been in two of this year’s biggest projects, so for the people who are saying this is the re-emergence of you, how is it having this new generation who are just being introduced to your catalog of work?
Well, it's just tiring to hear that it’s a re-emergence. Before Birds of Prey, it was NBC's Rise, and before Rise, it was this and it was that. I am continuously working but I am also not one of those people in the business that feels like I need to be seen all the time. I come out when I have a project to promote because I love my job and I am passionate about it, but this passion comes second to my life. My home life is my passion, my husband, my cats, my family, and my friends. And that's where I want to spend the majority of my time; my career takes the second position and that's okay. The only time I get annoyed by it is if I have an interviewer who hasn’t done their research about the totality of my career. And it is what it is. And I can change it. Do I want to change it? No. I just want my work to speak for itself.

Rosie Perez, Kaley Cuoco in 'The Flight Attendant'
Image via HBO Max/Phil Caruso

It does, in my opinion. You have had a stellar career in some very iconic roles. And obviously, 2020 has kind of put all of us at a standstill in a lot of ways, allowing us to spend more time with our family and just valuing what matters most. How has 2020 taken you to higher heights career-wise?
I think that people, even family members and friends of mine are starting to understand me more intimately. When the lockdowns came about, I was good. And they were like, "What?" But nothing changed because I'm a homebody anyway. I also suffer from mild depression and high anxiety. What they were feeling due to the lockdowns, that's my normal. So, I’ve been able to manage this pandemic a bit better than those closest to me. I remember telling my cousin, “Welcome to my world and to inside my head.”

I will say as time has gone by, I'm feeling the mental fatigue just like everybody else, even though that this is my “normal,” it's getting like, "Okay, I need a break." But we have to be diligent. We have to be steadfast and say, no, we got to stay this course. We got to keep doing it. And I worry about people getting physically sick, but more importantly, people getting mentally sick because it's no holiday to deal with depression every single day or to be anxiety-ridden every time you step out of your house. That’s why I joined the Governor’s campaign, because I want to do anything that helps get this under control. It pains me to see my very close friends and family members go through this. 

It's allowing for some additional communication, and opening the door for you to be able to share.
Exactly, yes. And it's funny because everyone in my circle is turning to me for the first time in my life. Asking for advice and tips. Even my sister, I helped walk her through an unexpected situation. She's always been there for me and I got a chance to be there for her. I never thought that COVID would give me that opportunity, but I see my chance to help her as a blessing. She’s one of my rocks. 

And it just removes the stigma. I think we just need to have more conversation around mental health. Something that has come out of this pandemic is the fact that we can share more authentically and transparently about the things going on because we realize we are not okay. A lot is happening, and we need to discuss things can get proper tools to help ourselves and each other amid much uncertainty.

I want to talk about your impact. Your career is so robust, and Megan Briscoe is another dynamic character that you can add to this lovely ever-growing legacy that you've already created. When it's all said and done, what do you want people to know and love about Rosie Perez and in the sense of legacy, what is it that you want to leave behind with your catalog of work?
That I paid it forward and that I contributed to try to make the world a better place for everybody. That I did my civic duty. My career is a blessing and it's great, but it means nothing if I don’t give back, and that's what I would want people to remember me by most.

Yes, in this humanity, if we don't give back, if we don't take care of each other, then what was it all for? Nothing else matters, and I think that's something that this year has brought to the surface for sure.

The Flight Attendant is streaming now on HBO Max.